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Sports in Sarasota and Manatee counties grab ever-larger share of tourism focus

A pitcher, batter and umpire in a spring training game.
Jim DeLa
Community News Collaborative file photo
The Pittsburgh Pirates, seen here in a spring training game in Bradenton, brings in about $40 million to the Bradenton-area economy during a six-week period.

From spring-training baseball to niche sports, facility investments pay off in Sarasota-Manatee, officials say.

At 8 a.m. on a recent Friday, hundreds of teenage soccer players and their parents filed into Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch.

The three-day tournament drew 240 teams to the Suncoast from across the United States to compete in front of college coaches.

Participating is not cheap, said Renee Tanner, who traveled with her 16-year-old son from Utah for the tournament. "It's thousands of dollars."

"It's a lot," agreed Tu Nguyen, who flew to the Suncoast with his son from Chicago.

With 12-15 players on a team and at least one parent per player making the trip, that adds up to a lot of hotel reservations and money flowing into local pockets.

Sports tourism is big business -- $300 million a year in Manatee County alone, officials say.

"The industry itself around the country has just exploded," said Pete Harvey, director of sports for Visit Sarasota. "Looking at the fiscal year for 2024, we are looking at about an $80 million economic impact from amateur sport tourism."

The emphasis on sports helps erase the lines between the area’s traditional tourist season and off-season. "It's allowed us to diversify the amount of visitors that come into the Bradenton area on a year-round basis," said Elliott Falcione, Manatee County's tourism director. "It augments our leisure business. It allows us to sustain tourism pretty much 12 months a year."

Nicole Rissler, the director of Parks Recreation and Natural Resources for Sarasota County, says she has seen the same effect. "I don't know that we have an off-season."+

Two teams playing soccer on a field.
Jim DeLa
Community News Collaborative file photo
Teams from Utah and Chicago compete in a tournament Nov. 29 at Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch.

It started with spring training

Major League Baseball began coming to Florida to prepare for upcoming seasons in 1913. It quickly because a tourist draw, with the ability to see big stars close up. It's still a major source of tourist dollars.

Pittsburgh Pirates baseball brings in about $40 million to the Bradenton-area economy during a six-week period, Falcione said, adding that it doesn't stop when the Pirates head north. "They run a solid year-round operation here with the (minor-league) Marauders. We partner with them to use these city-owned assets, Pirate City and Lincoln Park."

Sarasota County sees an even larger impact, with two teams, the Baltimore Orioles in Sarasota and the Atlanta Braves in North Port. "It's a very large piece of our sports tourism puzzle," Rissler said, "and in terms of economic impact, it probably is the single biggest for us."

She estimates the direct economic impact in 2023 was about $95 million between the two teams. "And that really represents about 100,000 out-of-town visitors that came to attend spring training here."

Economic impact is based on "a combination of things," Rissler explained. "It's an 'average daily spend' of our visitors," based on the model that's being used.

She said they take into account what the visitor 'spend' is, factoring in average lodging costs during that time of year.

Baltimore Orioles’ players watching a spring training game.
Jim DeLa
Community News Collaborative file photo
Baltimore Orioles’ players watch the action during spring training in Sarasota. The team brings in millions of tourist dollars each year. Sports tourism is growing on the Suncoast.

Amateur sports gaining ground

Both Falcione and Rissler say amateur sports hold the most potential for the Suncoast. Both counties spend time and effort to attract a wide range of sporting events. "It's a B2B business," Falcione observed. "You find the sports promoters. You align it with the assets that you have available. You cut a deal," he said. "And what our role is, is to help sponsor the events that leverage in the business; that actually bring business to the hoteliers, the restaurants, all the attractions."

Falcione said in Manatee County, soccer is dominant, with lacrosse gaining in popularity. Recently, the county hosted a major three-day lacrosse tournament that used all 24 fields at Premier as well as fields at IMG Academy. The economic impact from that single tournament was $8 million to $9 million, officials estimate.

Sports promoters say they are attracted to the Suncoast for the same reasons as vacationers. "Quality of fields, weather," said Noah Gins, the national chair of the Elite Academy League that has held major soccer events in Lakewood Ranch for the last few years. "And then, geographical decisions around ease of travel."

In Sarasota, soccer, softball and baseball are staples, Harvey said. But at Nathan Benderson Park, aquatic sports are attracting attention worldwide.

Three people playing soccer on a field.
Jim DeLa
Community News Collaborative file photo
A recent soccer tournament at Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch brought 240 teams and their families to the Suncoast.

U.S. Rowing events at Nathan Benderson will have a direct effect on the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Paris, according to Rissler. "They actually will be bringing most of their Olympic developmental team here for the first three months of 2024 to train here. And then at least some of the Olympic trials that will pick the team will be here in Sarasota."

Falcione says sports tourism has been a great investment for Manatee County, saying the county earns about $5 for every dollar spent on attracting events.

In Sarasota, for the fiscal year 2023, the county spent just over $800,000 on sports-tourism specific promotions. The estimated economic impact of sports tourism to Sarasota County was at least $93 million.

Factor in the Orioles and Braves, "we're probably in the $200 million mark on average," she said. "So, yes, it's a huge return for us."

Finding 'niche' markets

While traditional sports are popular, tourism officials are also looking for new sports to draw upon. In Manatee, the World Champions Cup, a Senior PGA version of the Ryder Cup, is holding its inaugural tournament at The Concession Golf Club in Lakewood Ranch.

Also this year, the Sarasota Croquet Club in Venice hosted two international events. Ed Smith Stadium hosted the all-American Girls Baseball Classic for the second year in a row.

In additional to rowing, Sarasota officials see promise in other aquatic sports. "Paddle sports, stand-up, paddling, canoe, kayak are huge," Harvey said. "We work very closely with Selby Aquatic Center and the Sarasota Sharks. We're hoping to bring in a USA Swimming Masters event in 2024."

Other events to watch for in 2024 include the USA BMX Sunshine State Nationals in Sarasota; a Cal Ripken Baseball event is planned in January and the state Babe Ruth championship will be played in Sarasota. USA Swimming will hold its open water national championship at Nathan Benderson Park after moving from Fort Myers.

Offshore powerboat races are shifting from the traditional July 4th weekend to September. Also in September, the Suncoast will host the International Canoe Federation Canoe Sprint World Cup.

Upgrading facilities

Both Sarasota and Manatee counties are in the middle of substantial upgrades to venues to keep a competitive edge in the sports tourism market.

People sitting in an outdoor stadium watching a baseball game.
Jim DeLa
Community News Collaborative file photo
The Baltimore Orioles play the Pittsburgh Pirates during spring training at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota.

The Manatee County Commission recently approved adding a third professional-level baseball field that will be called City Park, to be finished by 2025. "We'll be able to go after a high school tournaments, JUCO tournaments, college, and even some international baseball tournaments," Falcoine said.

A $7 million enhancement project at Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch will add a 6,500 square-foot permanent air-conditioned tent, more fields and lights, as well as 400 additional parking spaces.

The Bradenton Area Convention Center is in the middle of a $48 million expansion and renovation that will be able to accommodate indoor pickleball tournaments, cornhole tournaments, high school wrestling, taekwondo and tai chi.

"I'm really, really excited to see where we're at in about two years from now. It's going to continue to enhance our brand and keep us top of mind and competitive with cities all over the country," he said.

In Sarasota County, the long-awaited opening of the redesigned Bobby Jones Golf Club is set in December, including a nature preserve for hikers and extension of the Legacy Trail for bikers.

In May 2024, the county will start construction on the new 17th Street Regional Park, which will expand and upgrade the existing park with a new adult softball complex, eight fastpitch softball fields, additional multipurpose fields and expanded parking. "So that will be a showcase for college tournaments and youth softball," Harvey said. "I think it's going to be incredible and it's going to be a premier facility here in the state."

The endgame – bringing them back

Getting people here for sporting events is only the first step, tourism officials say. Getting them to come back is key.

A tournament, "brings Mom and Dad to Johnny's lacrosse tournament, even though they wouldn't really look at Bradenton as a place to visit," Falcione said. "And when you get Mom and Dad here for the first time, they're more likely to come back -- 74% of the time within a year for a vacation," he said. "You say, 'did you get a chance to visit that beautiful island called Anna Maria or go to Longboat Key?’ ’'

Three people standing up watching a soccer match.
Jim DeLa
Community News Collaborative file photo
Renee Tanner, left, and Jennifer Fiederer of Utah watch their sons’ team play in a soccer match Nov. 29 at Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch. The tournament brought 240 teams and their families to the Suncoast.

He cited another statistic that says a leisure visitor is likely to return 94% of the time within 12 months. "So who do we target every single time? First-time visitors."

At the Lakewood Ranch soccer tournament, even parents in town for oly two nights said they would find time to look around. "We'll make it to a beach or two," said Renee Tanner. "Yeah, we'll get a little bit of sunshine. It's snowing in Utah right now."

Tu Nguyen of Chicago has already made plans to be back.

"Absolutely," he said. "I've been wanting to go to Siesta Key, so by Saturday I'm going to head over there, scout out some places and then bring the family down for spring break."

Parents sit on the sideline of a soccer match.
Jim DeLa
Community News Collaborative file photo
Parents sit on the sideline of a soccer match Nov. 29 at Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch. The tournament brought 240 teams and their families to the Suncoast.

 Jim DeLa is a reporter for the Community News Collaborative. Reach him at jdela@cncfl.org

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